Tom Barker - What does it take for a project to be considered innovative in these days of domes, wheels and giant greenhouses? And does it matter?
There is a trend at the moment to judge building projects on the basis of how innovative they are. But what exactly is meant by innovation? A straw poll in our own office brought out these word associations: "new", "different", "futuristic", "creative", "progressive", "leading".

But a further poll on which projects qualified as innovative led to some confusion. The London Eye, the Eden greenhouses, Zaha Hadid's Cardiff Bay Opera House and Future System's media pavilion at Lord's were all considered innovative. Those that failed to qualify included the Millennium Dome, the Earth Centre, Wilkinson Eyre's Gateshead bridge and, curiously, the Arup/Foster Millennium Bridge. However, all of these projects seem to fit the words associated with innovation quite well, so there is perhaps something more subjective going on.

I suggest that there are two further criteria that make all the difference to our perception of innovation. The first is: has it been done before? Pivot bridges have many precedents so the Gateshead bridge loses out, even though it is very clever. The second is: was it a success? The dome lost out here quite badly, as did the Millennium Bridge and the Earth Centre. Projects that have never been built, such as Cardiff Bay, do pretty well too. Hence remaining unbuilt constitutes a pass in terms of success.

So innovation is only celebrated in projects that are a success. Fair enough; the same happens in other industries. Who would rave about the innovation of the Hindenburg airship or the Sinclair C5? Success gives an innovative project a higher profile and allows it to further influence an industry: it is good for clients, design teams, and contractors. But, alas, innovation is not coupled directly with success. Innovation can make something unsuccessful – and plenty of project managers know this.

When we build, the unknown or the new constitutes risk. Risk relates to time and money, and because contemporary building design aims to quantify all aspects of a project in advance, risk is not encouraged. And herein lies the rub, because innovation is certainly coupled with risk. Taking risks on a grand scale, the client may produce a London Eye or end up with a Millennium Dome.

Innovation is only celebrated in projects that are a success. Who would rave about the Sinclair C5?

What is very heartening about the past five years or so in the UK is the tremendous amount of innovation that the building industry has seen on a number of landmark projects. What is less thrilling is the way in which the bulk of building design is now repetitive and based on established components and methods. Putting up a steelframe air-conditioned curtain-wall office block in Canary Wharf within 24 months makes good commercial sense, but does it do much for progress in our industry? Particularly if we are using processes established by the middle of the last century.

We try not to talk too much about fashion in building design. When a building is supposed to last more than 50 years, basing our designs on the season's latest trends is pretty banal. For fit-out, we can live with today's purple colour schemes and curvy reception areas since the design lifetime may only be a few years. But what if innovation was only in fashion for our splurge on millennium and lottery projects? What if it is now considered time to go back to basics and be more sensible? After all, the big government handouts that helped to cover risk may now be a thing of the past.

It is hardly the time to be complacent about innovation. The many design challenges caused by climate change and depleted energy resources are yet to hit us. The air-conditioned tower block may have a 50-year design life, but we only have fuel for 40 years. Could we forget how to innovate because we've squeezed it out through risk management techniques? A willingness to innovate is also cultural. We are working to deal with such issues in the Singapore masterplan by Richard Rogers Partnership, where promoting a climate of innovation in a mixed-use urban context is key to the brief. In fact, the real innovation here is allowing citizens access to a masterplanning "toolbox" that enables them to influence their own society.